Switching on to talking cargo

Switching on to talking cargo

The industry is on the threshold of a sci-fi world of communicating cargo. This new technology is likely to lead to a complete rethink of the airfreight operation, writes Yvonne Mulder in London, UK.

It has often been said that transporting cargo is not as stressful as moving passengers because cargo cannot complain. Well, soon that may no longer be true as the introduction of ‘talking boxes’ or ‘smart Unit Load Devices’ (ULDs) becomes a reality.

Celine Hourcade, Head of Cargo Transformation, International Air Transport Association (IATA), said that the logistics suppliers need to reinvent themselves to meet new demands. “Customers want more visibility, efficient ways to collect the right data, and constant dialogue with their logistics provider,” she told delegates at the Innovation in the Air Cargo Industry seminar held during Air Cargo Europe in Munich in May.

The introduction of the Electronic Air Waybills (e-AWBs) is just the first step, she explained. “It simply replaces one paper document with one electronic message. The industry needs to move more quickly to digital cargo and then interactive cargo — making cargo talk.”

Sci-fi future

Ashok Rajan, Vice President and Global Head of Cargo Business, IBS Software Service, said that the Internet of Things (IoT) is often seen as sci-fi, “but it is all about data at a granular level and how you react to it.”

He identified four stages: monitor, control, optimize and automate. “We are still at the monitoring stage really and we need to reimagine the entire operation.” This includes better customer service via mobile apps, task automation within the warehouse, and smart sensors and robotics in the handling operations.

Shahzad Aslam, CHAMP Cargosystems Core Cargo Product Director, told delegates that “innovation is not about having a brilliant idea. It is making that idea into a business reality.” He suggested that because cargo cannot talk, the freight industry has needed more experienced personnel to handle it. “But that is changing, we are seeing freight talk to cargo systems through smart ULDs and smart labels tracking.” He added: “If we can talk to a fridge, why not to a cool container? Real time visibility is the essence of the industry.”

He identified the use of smart machines to reduce the handling and connection time to improve the overall travel time for cargo. This means the possibility of a higher yield for general cargo, with quicker and more trackable delivery. During the Air Cargo industry seminar at Air Cargo Europe, he invited the audience to try a demo of Cargospot using the voice bot Amazon Alexa, which can help in tracking, booking and quotes with conversation in English or German language.

Jettainer, in partnership with sister company Lufthansa Industry Solutions, has just launched its first digital container which has sensors to measure a range of criteria including geolocation, temperature, vibration, humidity and damage, said Dr Gert Pfeifer, Senior IT Manager & ISO, Jettainer GmbH.

“Innovation helps us closing or bridging gaps in the service to our customers. We have a pretty mature technology in terms of ULD management, but we are always trying to improve the product to make it even more efficient.”

“Smart ULDs generate lots of data but we also need to make it useful to our customers. You can have an idea but you also need the business case so that people are willing to pay for it.”

Clearly Jettainer has succeeded as Etihad Airways has signed up to be its first customer for smart ULDs.

Smart ULDs

Away from the conference, other companies are also talking about developing smart ULDs. Nexiot, which has just agreed a deal to supply smart devices for 80,000 rail wagons, is looking to move into airfreight.

“Our niche is supplying services for monitoring non-powered assets or those that cannot plug in — self-sustaining devices that you can just attach to the outside of an asset,” explained Daniel MacGregor, Nexiot Director of Marketing and Sales. “There is a high value business case in the air cargo sector.”

The company believes all its potential customers want visibility and control “but everyone has slightly different pain points. We ask what challenges they need to overcome.”

Nexiot identified the main entry barriers as batteries (maintenance and replacement), cost (return on investment), and integration (the need for systems that speak to each other).

“So we use modules that are zero maintenance and which get their energy from the environment. And we do not sell the devices, we sell the service. Data is sent to the customer’s system in the format that they want and put into the context they need for their business planning.”

Robert Mellin, Engagement Lead New Industries, Logistics, at Ericsson, said the development from 1G to 3G, and ultimately to 5G, means the communications technology is mature enough to look at connecting goods and making logistics more fluent. “The smart label on a box or ULD contains the information needed for transport, but now we can add much more information. It depends on the value of the box and whether the customer is willing to invest in smart labels in order to have more control.”

For instance, temperature and humidity sensors that flag up excursions in real-time allow the problem to be fixed before damage is done, while light sensors indicating that a box has been opened can stop theft and/or substitution by counterfeit goods.

The new telecoms technology requires less energy or battery power than in the past as the devices can be set to send when something is happening, and are not on all the time. “But we do need an international agreement on what language/terminology we want to use for all ULDs to talk to whatever company is using them,” said Mellin.

Uwe Beck, Managing Director, Becon Projects, a consultant in air cargo handling systems and operation optimization, agreed that there is a need to harmonize the technology. “A cargo handler cannot have 20 different systems at one airport to read all the different tags and devices from the different airlines.

“For instance, we need to have a common radio-frequency identification (RFID) approved by IATA and by aircraft manufacturers that is allowed to be an active RFID throughout the journey. We need the regulations to change.”

He believes that “it will be a long way to go as progress is slow. The biggest problem in the industry is that we do not have accurate data. Data is incorrect, not complete and/or not in the right format, so it makes it very difficult to plan in advance – which is what we need to greatly improve efficiency.”

But the delegates to the IATA seminar in Munich were more upbeat about the prospects for the development of data technologies.

Hourcade summed up by saying: “In the future, cargo will talk to us, it will tell us how happy it is because of the fast, high quality and efficient progress it is making.

“We want to hear that the cargo — and therefore the customer — is happy!”

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